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If you’re trying to shed pounds, the formula is pretty simple: You need to burn more calories than you consume, thereby creating a caloric deficit. And while diet can play a dominant role in this equation, choosing the right workouts can make a world of difference, too. And with so many different types of exercise to choose from, it can be tough to know which ones are the best for your goals.
If you have even an occasional workout routine, chances are you’re doing at least one of the two most common types of exercise: cardio workouts and strength training. But which is more effective in the goal of losing weight? Let’s explore…
Strength Training vs. Cardio Exercise for Weight Loss
How Does Strength Training Impact Weight Loss?
Strength training, such as weightlifting or resistance training, is a type of exercise that uses a resisting force (traditionally, gravity) to build muscle mass, strength, and efficiency. Strength training can be done using a variety of equipment, including free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, and even one’s own bodyweight.
The result of this form of exercise is, first and foremost, increased muscle mass. This can initially cause an increase in the scale (often startling new strength trainers seeking the opposite effect), strength training is a great way to trick your body into burning more calories overall. But how?
To start, muscle tissue is more metabolically active, even when at rest. So an increase in muscle mass means an increased net rate of calorie burn, due to the elevated metabolism that comes with muscle.
Plus, bodies with greater muscle mass use fat more efficiently, burning through fat as fuel instead of sugars. This is especially important if you want to lose weight while keeping your strength—which is non-negotiable for people (especially women) over 40.
In addition, strength training has numerous benefits like improving body composition, reducing body fat percentage, and increasing bone density. Just remember that muscle tissue is heavier than fat, so don’t be discouraged by what you see on the scale as you ramp up a strength training routine.
How Does Cardio Exercise Drive Weight Loss?
Cardio exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, is any exercise that increases one’s heart rate. This form of exercise (which includes running, swimming, dancing, hiking, or anything else that gets your heart pumping—even sex!) is an effective way to burn calories and, even more importantly, improve your cardiovascular health.
This is often the go-to when one is focused on weight loss, as the calorie burn per hour of cardio exercise is greater than the same duration of time spent weight training. However, that burn ends as soon as your heart rate returns to normal.
So cardio is helpful for weight loss if you’re doing a lot of it—say, 4–6 cardio workouts per week. But if you’re focusing on cardio alone, and not increasing strength, you won’t see a net increase in ambient calorie burn. This is because cardio exercise typically involves using large muscle groups for a sustained period, which certainly burns calories, but it doesn’t stimulate muscle growth, which is key for supercharging long-term fat loss.
Cardio vs. Strength Training for Weight Loss: The Verdict
We know doing cardio will typically burn more calories than a weight training workout of the same duration, and we know strength training builds muscle that increases metabolism and helps burn calories long after your workout has ended. So what’s your best bet?
Do both. When you combine strength training and cardio exercise, you’ll not only lose fat and prime your body to burn future fat more efficiently, but you will also enjoy the numerous—and essential—benefits of both, including improved heart health, increased bone density, reduced muscle loss, and improved body composition.
How Much Strength Training and Cardio Should You Do?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week. The CDC also recommends that adults do strength training exercises that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms) on two or more days a week.
An effective and sustainable schedule to maintain is working out 4-5 days a week and alternating your strength and cardio days for optimal benefits.
Tips for Getting Started With Strength Training and Cardio
If you are new to strength training or cardio, it is important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts over time. It is also important to listen to your body and rest when you need to. Rest is particularly key with strength training, so ensure you’re not overworking your body and make your weight loss exercise regime sustainable.
Here are a few tips for getting started with strength training and cardio:
Start with light weights and gradually increase the weight as you get stronger.
Focus on compound exercises that work for multiple muscle groups at once.
Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions of each exercise.
Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.
Start with a moderate-intensity cardio workout for 20-30 minutes.
Gradually increase the intensity or duration of your workouts over time.
Aim to do cardio 3-5 times per week.
Remember, no matter what type of exercise you’re doing, make sure you never skimp on the recovery! And if you find yourself with aches and pains as a result, sports massage is an excellent means to get back in ship shape in no time.
Alternative Option: HIIT
Another form of exercise called High-Intensity Interval Training or HIIT is also worth mentioning here as it may equal the effectiveness of cardio for weight loss. This exercise involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods. A study that compared the calories burned during 30 minutes of HIIT, running, biking and weight training, found that HIIT burned 25-30% more calories than the other forms of exercise.
You Don’t Have to Go it Alone
It is important to note that while you incorporate strength training, cardio, or HIIT into your life, also be mindful of the rest of your health equation: diet, lifestyle, health conditions, and genetics. These are all factors that can impact the effectiveness of these workouts. It may also be helpful to seek out professionals who can help you understand these factors better and more holistically. Practitioners like nutritionists, dieticians, and even your family physician can guide you in choosing the right exercises, foods, and lifestyle factors to set you on a successful weight loss journey.
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